AUSTIN (KXAN) — Dr. Seema Desai never met Nima Bhakta, but she remembers the moment she came across a post about her death on social media.
The California mom, Bhakta, lost her struggle with postpartum depression and died by suicide in July, said her family.
“Reading her story just — it just broke my heart,” said Dr. Desai. “It felt so real. It felt like I was reliving all of the experiences that I had postpartum.”
The young mother’s death helped Desai open up about her own struggle with postpartum.
“TRIGGER WARNING!” Dr. Desai started her post on Instagram on August 6.
There, she explained what she had gone through nearly nine years ago.
“… I didn’t want to hold him. I didn’t want to feed him. I didn’t want to do anything for him… I felt crushing guilt… I shrank further into the depths of my guilt and self-loathing,” wrote the mother in a blog post she shared.
“When I was alone with my baby, I would just sob for hours, gasping for air, only because I knew I had to stay alive to feed my baby,” continued to write Dr. Desai.
Her story has resonated with women battling postpartum depression across the country.
“To all the moms out there, you’re not alone in your struggles. Let’s come together and #breakthestigma4nima & for mothers everywhere,” said Dr. Desai.
Those close to Bhakta have been open about her death so that it can start conversations about mental health in the Indian community.
Breaking cultural barriers
Dr. Desai, a dentist, said she started showing signs of postpartum depression after her son’s birth. She explained that her family had just moved to Austin and they didn’t have a lot of help.
Dr. Desai said that the lack of support, coupled with the exhaustion after having a baby and her own expectations of motherhood made it extremely tough.
“I didn’t feel like I could talk to anybody about it, because I didn’t want to be judged,” explained Dr. Desai whose family is from India.
She explained that there is a stigma around seeking mental health care in the Indian community.
“People might say this is just normal and your experience is just kind of, ‘Get over it,’ or it’s just something that you should stay positive or be strong about. And those might be typical messages that we might hear in the Indian community around mental health,” said Dr. Patel.
“Those messages can be quite dismissive. They don’t acknowledge that sometimes that mother is really struggling and hearing those messages she might think, ‘I guess I’m not strong enough or maybe I’m weak — maybe I’m the only one — and so I’m going to try to keep it to myself.”
Dr. Patel explained that focus needs to be put on normalizing going to therapy and getting help.
Bhakta’s close friend explained to KXAN investigator Arezow Doost that what she was going through had many layers.
“One of those layers was that in the Indian community issues of mental health are often brushed under the rug,” explained Sneha Mathur, Bhakta’s friend and college roommate. “Having limited experience expressing these emotions makes it harder for Indian women like us to find the words to explain what we are going through. It’s also likely that because we don’t openly talk about PPD (postpartum depression) or mental health in our community, Nima didn’t realize that some of her feelings and frustrations were triggered by PPD.”
Need for better tracking
Dr. Patel explained that it’s hard to understand the impact of postpartum depression on the Indian community, because the data is too broad and includes any Asian background.
She said the research even in India is limited.
Dr. Patel said in two studies she came across in India it was concluded that postpartum depression is not assessed enough in the community, but when it is, there is a high prevalence rate.
“It is notable that these rates were found when assessed and maybe we can conclude that more of the Indian community should be informed on the signs of PPD so they know what to look out for, as PPD is highly treatable,” said Dr. Patel. She said symptoms can include:
- Excessive crying
- Change in appetite
- Severe anxiety
- Panic attacks
- Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
- Withdrawing and isolation
Maternal health among Asians in Texas
A state report by the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force found that between 2012 to 2015 there were 33 maternal deaths by suicide in Texas.
The data does not break down race or ethnicity, but the report said that the majority of suicides happened more than 61 days postpartum.
According to the same report and between the same time period, for the race/ethnicity category “other,” out of 103,934 live births, the number of maternal deaths were 3% across the state.
“It doesn’t, though, break out women of Asian descent. Because of small numbers, they are included in the “other” race/ethnicity category,” explained Chris Van Deusen, Director of Media Relations with the Texas Dept. of State Health Services.
Van Deusen also shared recent data released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 14 maternal mortality review committees. He said the underlying causes of death related to mental health conditions accounted for 8.8% of pregnancy-related deaths.
Texas data isn’t included in that yet.
“We recently launched the Maternal Mortality Review Information Application (MMRIA) which shares this kind of information with the CDC,” said Van Deusen.
Breaking the silence
Dr. Patel who grew up in New Jersey, immersed in the Indian culture, said she got into mental health to help other’s especially within her community.
“I felt if it was coming from someone who has a shared background and a shared identity then it would be easier for people to seek mental health care,” explained Dr. Patel. “To go to someone who looks like them — who has had the same experiences — that’s one of my main goals or passions… why I got into this field is to normalize a lot of that.”
She’s now seven months pregnant and said there are ways new moms can take care of themselves during postpartum. Her tips include:
- Making sure to stay connected to social support
- Talking about how their feeling
- Connecting with someone who won’t judge
- Finding a community that shares the same experience
- Incorporating self-care and going to therapy
Dr. Desai said she found yoga which helped her cope and it became her therapy. She eventually incorporated acupuncture.
She’s now sharing her story and said more focus should be put on mental well checks during postpartum care.
“I do it so that we can build a better world for both our sons and our daughters, to show them that it’s OK to be human. It’s OK to have challenges that you can rise to,” said Dr. Desai. “Those challenges and you can make the world a better place if you do it with the right purpose.”
Resources for postpatum depression:
- Pregnancy and Postpartum Health Alliance of Texas
- Mamas for mamas Austin
- Postpartum Support International
- Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration
- South Asian-identified Therapist
- Self Love Revolution